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FremantleMedia Group, based in London, has 3,000 employees working across 31 markets, meaning CEO Cecile Frot-Coutaz rarely has time to fixate on one country, let alone a single show in the Bertelsmann-owned company’s global suite of 423 programs. But she made an exception during the first half of 2017 for American Idol. Once the company’s gilded show pony, the talent competition was absent from U.S. airwaves for the first time in 15 years. To ensure a revivial, the married mother of two daughters, ages 13 and 8, became a regular again at the Burbank office she had called home for a decade. Ultimately, ABC struck a deal to bring Idol back in 2018 with original host Ryan Seacrest, $25 million judge Katy Perry and, producers hope, some respectable fraction of the show’s peak of 37 million viewers.
Now, Frot-Coutaz, 51, can turn her attention back to the rest of FremantleMedia’s global purview: the world’s biggest reality formats (see megahit America’s Got Talent), a growing number of niche scripted plays (HBO’s The Young Pope and Starz’s American Gods) and an estimated $1.6 billion in annual revenue and rising profits. But, sitting in the spartan glass box she’s using as an office during a July visit to Los Angeles, the French-born executive readily acknowledges what people want to hear about. “I spent the best part of the last five years trying to diversify our business,” says Frot-Coutaz, with a mix of a smile and a sigh. “But it always comes back to American Idol, no matter how hard I try.”
Negotiations to bring back Ryan Seacrest lasted nearly two months. What finally sealed it?
It was always going to happen. It’s hard for Ryan. He’s on the East Coast now and had to figure out how to make it work, but he’s the hardest-working man in show business, so there will be some flying back and forth. But, as I said, it was always going to happen. He’s the face of Idol.
Idol creator Simon Fuller has said that Seacrest is the show’s “single most important element.” Is there one essential piece?
It would be very strange to make American Idol without Ryan, but the danger is to forget that it’s the contestants that make the show. The key factor to a successful season is finding the right contestants.
Why not wait longer to bring Idol back?
When Idol wrapped, we did extensive research. We found that we’d recruited new, much younger viewers. Do you wait five or six years, with the landscape continuing to evolve, and risk losing those followers? In thinking about doing the right thing for the brand and franchise, it felt to us that it was an unfinished story. Even though the show lived on Fox for 15 years, its audience is actually closer to that of ABC or CBS.
Each broadcast network was in some sort of talks for Idol. Fox TV Group co-chair Dana Walden said that bringing it back felt “extremely fraudulent” for Fox, and Leslie Moonves said the economics wouldn’t work for CBS. What do you say to that?
Fox made a decision to move away from it, and I understand why they did. It was taking up a lot of real estate on the network. Dana and [co-chair] Gary [Newman], who were new, needed that real estate to develop shows. Dana’s absolutely right. For that Fox network and for that Fox audience, it probably would’ve been too soon.
Katy Perry’s judge’s salary alone is $25 million, and there are at least two more slots to fill. How are you making sure the new Idol makes financial sense for ABC?
The show is not more expensive than its competitors in the genre. If other networks can make it work on similar properties, then there’s no reason why ABC couldn’t. This notion that the show [costs] a lot more than any other is completely untrue. We know that because we’ve made other shows in other genres. ABC wouldn’t order something that didn’t work for them financially.
What convinced you that Katy Perry would be worth the price tag?
Katy is in a transition in terms of her own career. It has been shown now what these platforms can do for artists. It has been beneficial to other people, whether it’s on Idol or The Voice. But I think she genuinely cares. She auditioned when she was a guest judge on Idol in 2010 and then on the [U.K.] X-Factor. She’s brilliant.
Paula Abdul was Idol‘s only household name when the show premiered. Can a reality show launch without marquee talent?
It hasn’t been done recently. I would like to think that you can — but because there is a certain bar that has been set, there is now an expectation from the audience that you would have at least one, if not two, stars with a lot of credibility.
Simon Cowell said he turned down an offer to return. What was that conversation like?
I’m not going to comment on that. Simon is on NBC on America’s Got Talent, and I think therein lies your answer.
Speaking of Talent, it’s in the middle of its most watched season. Why is that happening 11 years in?
Simon coming back is for sure a factor. But, by the nature of the show, the clips play incredibly well online. There’s a virality that feeds into the success. That video of [12-year-old singing ventriloquist] Darci Lynne is the most watched clip on Facebook. My nanny in London had seen it within 24 hours of broadcast. My 77-year-old mother, who’s somewhere in the middle of France, had seen it within three or four days of broadcast. That, to me, is extraordinary.
You have reboots of Celebrity Family Feud, Match Game and To Tell the Truth on ABC. Is there an end to the nostalgia mine in alternative programming?
Our business is very cyclical. Five years ago, you wouldn’t see any game [show] in primetime. More fundamental, in a world this fragmented, it’s hard to launch new brands. Pairing existing brand equity with proven talent, from a broadcaster’s standpoint, is a lower-risk proposition than starting from scratch. But as with everything in our business, if something works, everybody does it, exhausts it, and it goes away. Then it comes back a few years later.
What are your scripted priorities?
Our ambition is not to compete with American studios. We’re always going to be more of a niche player, but I’m excited to lean into our global footprint. In Italy, our company has some brilliant shows coming up — including the adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. [The drama series will] be in Italian, shot in Naples and air on HBO in America.
Five years ago, people were talking about adapting those dramas for English markets.
Which I don’t believe in. The world has become so global. Most people will have already seen the original version — unless you can do what Homeland did so well in reconceiving a premise for a different market.
Steve Harvey, who hosts Family Feud for you, got a lot of bad press over a leaked memo that told his staff to leave him alone. Is that the sort of thing that gives an executive heart palpitations?
“Only worry about what you can control” is my mantra.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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